The Shawshank Redemption takes no prisoners as it hits The Regent Theatre

Despite protests of his innocence, Andy Dufresne has been handed a double life sentence for the savage murder of his wife and her lover, and has been incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank facility.

The stage of the Regent Theatre has been transformed into a bleak and miserable cell block in which the inmates rattle around for this heart wrenching and brutally emotive adaptation of Shawshank Redemption.

Based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the production has been adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns to offer a thrilling stage production that examines the desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic bars of a maximum-security facility.

The lights flick on and immediately I know that this isn’t going to be an easy watch. Three men stand naked holding their belongings in front of their crotches as they’re cleaned up ready for entry into genpop. 

It’s raw and hard-hitting from the off, at times even difficult to digest, but so completely captivating that you can’t take your eyes off the cast, particularly Joe Absolom as wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne with Ben Onwukwe as his inmate Ellis “Red” Redding.

Jack Merriman

The 1994 feature film, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and is regularly voted Britain’s favourite ever movie. I’ll admit, I’ve never seen it. But after watching this production I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever need to because it truly is a triumph, with BAFTA-worthy acting and on-stage chemistry like no other.

With an impressive TV career, Joe Absolom has barely been off our screens in twenty-five years: from Matthew Rose in EastEnders and Al Large in Doc Martin, to Christopher Halliwell in A Confession for which he was nominated for a Supporting Actor BAFTA in 2020 – that explains my previous point. His Andy Dufresne appears to draw inspiration from the likes of Prison Break mastermind Michael Scofield, with wonderfully portrayed neurodivergence as seen with characters like The Good Doctor’s Shaun Murphy. 

Jack Merriman

Realising no-one can survive alone in the cesspit prison, made more of a misery by the unsavoury ‘Sisters’, Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Red, reprised by Ben Onwukwe, who’s 30 years of experience in the industry shows in his natural ability to charm the audience and the life he breathes into the character. 

Resilient Red also acts as the narrator, breaking the fourth wall in an often Fleabag/The Office style way that brings light relief to the harrowing story.

It’s no mean feat to follow in the footsteps of someone like Morgan Freeman in such an iconic role, but Ben does so in a way that both pays homage to the actor, while making Red his own.  

Jack Merriman

As for the rest of the 12-men cast, there were some real standout performances, including Kenneth Jay’s bibliophile Brooksie who really captured the hearts of the audience from start to finish, as well as Coulter Dittman’ Tommy, and hopeless romantic Rico, who earned many of the laughs coaxed from the crowd, played by Jules Brown.

Warden Stammas, played by Mark Hennahan, decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, using manipulation and blackmail. The obtuse warden is stoic and stony, but plays the part of the prison warden brilliantly while Andy’s plan is quietly hatched right under his nose.

Jack Merriman

Gritty and intense, The Shawshank Redemption is a production that takes no prisoners, which is perhaps why it is such a phenomenal stage success. I’m so pleased I hadn’t watched the film or read the book prior, because while I may have been missing out on such a seminal piece of popular culture, having no idea of how the story would end as I settled into the Regent’s mustard-yellow seats was an entirely enveloping experience.

Despite trying themes of aggression and gang rape, this story of power and violence is overpowered by the message of hope – it’s no wonder The Shawshank Redemption is a narrative which so many hold close to their hearts.

The Shawshank Redemption is at The Regent Theatre until Saturday, February 25 with tickets available from £13.

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Jack Merriman
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